New President to Face Clear-Cut Choices

By Craig R. McKinley
Labor Day always metaphorically signifies the end of the summer, and in those years divisible by four, it marks the final dash of presidential campaigns to election day. After the conventions of the two major parties in late July, which made Donald Trump the Republican Party nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party nominee, the campaigns of the two major presidential contenders will begin in earnest.

Presidential campaigns are a uniquely American experience, one that has grown longer over time, and in the modern era seems to kick off right after the delivery of a new president’s inaugural address. But whoever emerges victorious in November will face a number of vexing problems including a federal budget process that has become totally chaotic, federal funding levels for defense that are well below acknowledged requirements and political resistance to taking fundamental steps that would narrow the gap between recognized needs and funding allocations.

To elaborate, the process by which the federal government crafts the annual budget has largely come to a halt. The structured process of budget formulation and preparation, known on Capital Hill as “regular order,” has largely vanished. The process by which the budget committees establish allocations, the armed services committees establish authorizations, and the appropriations committees actually appropriate the funds, has completely broken down. It has been replaced by a process where each of these steps has been hijacked by various political groups seeking to add additional complexity to an already complicated process by injecting debates about debt limits and numerous other policy issues. This shift to “irregular order” is what led us to the unfortunate Budget Control Act of 2011, which established discretionary spending caps.

Over the past 200 years, Congress has established a reasonable process for producing a budget, which is one of its most fundamental responsibilities. It founded several offices to assist with the details of budget formulation and to provide reasoned, non-partisan advice. It has established a schedule ending Oct. 1, which allows more than enough time to finish the task. Congress just needs to respect and follow its own process. This will have to be addressed by the new chief executive — a role of the president.

On the defense side, while we have committed the armed forces to constant conflict against dangerous non-state actors such as ISIS, and asked them to prepare for possible traditional conflict against a handful of rising powers, we have slowly been eroding their size and readiness levels by underfunding their needs. Under current projections, the amount of money spent on national defense efforts between 2012 and 2021 will be nearly a trillion dollars less than required — $911 billion to be specific, according to the Bipartisan Policy Committee. To accommodate this shortage, our armed forces are getting smaller while the challenges of the strategic environment are getting larger, and such essential items as readiness, maintenance and modernization are eroding.

In the past when we have significantly reduced forces, or reduced their readiness, it was in response to an improved threat environment. Today’s reductions are driven by budget decisions that were made despite a deteriorating security climate. This has created an increasingly untenable situation that will have to be addressed by the new commander in chief — a role of the president.

Finally, whenever the Pentagon has proposed steps that would allow it to better bridge the gap between requirements and funding, Congress has declined to give it the necessary authorities. For example, the secretary of defense almost annually requests authority to conduct another round of base realignments and closures, which would build on the cost savings of the five previous rounds. Congress’ refusal to authorize further closures and consolidations results in the retention of significant excess infrastructure that the Defense Department does not need, especially as it is mandated to reduce its force structure.

The department maintains a global real-property portfolio of more than 561,000 facilities valued at more than $879 billion, the report said. Getting a handle on what maintenance is needed to cover such a vast amount of holdings has been a problem for budget planners. It is made all the more complicated when they are trying to maintain buildings and property that are unneeded.

In addition, requests by the Pentagon to review and revise the traditional benefits and compensation processes have also been rebuffed. These issues will have to be addressed by the new chief management officer — again, a role of the president.

So the new president, who fills all of these roles, will find all of these issues piled high on the desk in the oval office. The question is: What does he or she do about them?

The late Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., who led one of the early efforts to control federal spending by helping to craft the Gramm-Rudman legislation of the late 1980s, said that a new president comes to office with a finite amount of “political kinetic energy,” fueled by the goodwill of the American people who are hoping for good results.

It is important, as Rudman argued, to focus this energy on the key issues and not waste it on secondary or tertiary ones. Many citizens will be eagerly informing the new president on which issues are truly the “key” ones, and many of their arguments will be compelling. But the new president has to realize that the armed forces are struggling under the current budget structure, and that there are clear choices to be made.

Going forward, defense programs have to be funded at the level current requirements demand, necessary cost reduction efforts have to be fully embraced, or the demands placed on the force significantly reduced. Simply put, those are the choices.

Topics: Defense Department

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